Engaging Lectures

Planning an effective lecture

The lecture, one of the oldest teaching methods, is still the most widely used method of instruction on college campuses. But, is it an effective method? The answer is, “Yes, but...”

Yes, lectures are particularly good for presenting up-to-date information, summarizing material, adapting material to the background and interests of a particular group of students, and focusing on key concepts, principles, or ideas (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2014). But, new advancements in understanding about memory, motivation, and learning indicate a need to rethink how to organize and deliver a lecture.

Research shows that information is more easily learned when it is linked to what one already knows. Thus the lecture needs to build a bridge between students' knowledge base and the new material or subject matter of the lecture (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2014). The following are some suggestions as to how to do this:

  • Find out what your students already know by collecting information, asking questions, etc.
  • As you introduce new topics, start with a review of the material that came before and show how the new content is connected to or builds on it.
  • Use examples that are relevant to your students' experiences.
  • Order the subtopics in a meaningful sequence, using good transitions and ample metaphors, examples, demonstrations, or other relevant illustrations.
  • Make the lecture structure transparent by planning a good introduction.
  • Use slides or the board for key points.
  • Make sure your conclusion or summary ties the important information together.

One of the biggest barriers to an effective lecture is presenting too much material for a given class. An easy trap to fall into is overloading students' information processing capacity to the extent that they become frustrated and give up. Students learn more and better if fewer points are presented. So it is essential to think carefully about what you can reasonably address in the time allotted.

Using active learning in lecturing

Students learn more effectively when they are actively engaged than when they passively receive information (Mc-Glynn, 2001). Following are some ways to incorporate active learning into your lecture (Davis, 1993). For additional strategies, see the section on group learning.

Beginning of class

  • Use groups: Have students form groups (pairs or trios) at the beginning of class and give them time to discuss material, solve a problem, or raise a question to be discussed during the class.
  • Brainstorm: Pose an open-ended question to the class at the beginning of a lecture and ask students to brainstorm. Write students' ideas on the board or on an overhead. Refer to these ideas later in the lecture. You can combine or group related ideas and provide major conclusions, or allow students to do this.
  • Post problems: Ask students to raise questions they may have at the start of the hour. Write these on the board. Alternatively, you can invite students to e-mail questions to you about readings ahead of time. These questions can be assembled and distributed at the beginning of the period. As you lecture, indicate any questions that are being addressed.

Middle of class

  • Pause: Divide your lecture into two 20-minute (or three 15-minute) periods of lecturing followed by a two-minute pause where students can work in pairs to compare and rework their notes. Students might also use a pause to answer a question or solve a problem with a partner. This is a good time for students to address any questions posed earlier and posted on the board.
  • Student experts: Have students become experts on key points throughout the semester. Students can be responsible for a small part of a lecture where their “key point” is featured.
  • Take a vote: Make a statement based on the lecture content and ask students for a show of hands if they agree, disagree, or don't know. A discussion of why may follow.

End of class

  • Assign a one-minute paper: At the end of the lecture, students can be asked to write a one-minute paper summarizing the main points of the lecture, the most important point of the lecture, or perhaps the most unclear point. You can collect these and use them as a guide to how well information was presented and what information needs clarification.
  • Hold a discussion: Periodically cut your lecture short. Use the last 20-25 minutes of class time for informal discussion.

Classroom presence

In addition to introducing active learning, you can capture the attention of your students by becoming a more dynamic lecturer. Here are some techniques you might try (McGlynn, 2001, p. 76).

  • Start your lecture with an interesting story, a personal anecdote, or a provocative visual.
  • Ask a question or state a problem that is central to the material you will be talking about.
  • Use real-life examples that are relevant to your students' experiences.
  • Show enthusiasm.
  • Use your voice effectively-speak with energy and inflection.
  • Move around the room to better connect with all your students.

Where can I learn more?


  • Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • McGlynn, A. P. (2001). Successful beginnings for college teaching. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
  • McKeachie, W. J., & Svinicki, M. (2014). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.